Portrait Story Project

“Voices for Appalachia”

Written and Narrated by Hundreds

An Appalachia Portrait-Story Project

View “Voices For Appalachia” Gallery

Portraits laid out in the grass.On August 20th 2004, at about 2:30 a.m., a half ton boulder, dislodged by a heavy equipment operator on an active strip site, crashed down a mountainside, hit a stump, went airborne (and so locals commonly call such boulders “flyrock”) and smashed into the bedroom of three-year old Jeremy Davidson, killing him in his sleep. In the following weeks the “Mountain Justice” movement formed in the response to this insanely irresponsible industry’s continuing threat upon people’s homes, watersheds and heritage.

In early 2008, United Mountain Defense, the Tennessee chapter of Mountain Justice, received a copy of The Post-Katrina Portraits – Written and Narrated by Hundreds (see it all on postkatrinaportraits.org) perhaps the most entrenchant and immediate single collection of first hand accounts of Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors and the grassroots disaster relief efforts to surface out of all the copious media that bloomed in the aftermath.

It seemed to some in the movement for the Appalachians that this kind of aesthetic media would make the dilemmas of artificial disaster in the Appalachian coal fields also compelling for public sympathy and mobilization to stop the atrocities of amoral “mad-bomber” corporations doing “strip mining on steroids” vastly and irrevocably detonating the geology. A few phone calls later, The Portrait-Story bottom-liners had committed to bringing their “media solidarity,” to what they could identify as a “self-determination struggle.”

They came as soon as they could, March of 2008, for the first time to the Southern Highlands of North America. The results, now available for posterity have come to be known as “Voices for Appalachia – A Portrait-Story Project – Written and Narrated by Hundreds.”

Portraits laid out in fan pattern in grass.These portraits indicate every demographic that they had the privilege of co-generating content with during their nearly two years of travels. Many of the people drawn were friends and friends of friends so the project reflects a greater sense of expanding or overlapping rings of community. Dozens of households embodied this “art-media-social phenomenon” by inviting these creatives amongst themselves, kin, neighbors and associates, supplying them with bed, board and morale for the volunteer service and then asserting their narratives upon the original drawings of themselves. As awareness of The Portrait-Story Project spread, it tended to keep manifesting, provided specific request or explicit desire to participate, which happened by word of mouth or e-mail, and hospitality upon arrival.

On these Appalachian Portrait-Stories we have a panorama of expressions: snippets of everyday life, relationship to the land and culture and struggles for empowerment or at least survival – as handwritten by those living it. In a few cases, where an otherwise able participant stated their illiteracy, a relative by blood or marital commitment volunteered to write their words for them and annotated so.

Initially roughly envisioning a five month commitment of making this “positive self-fulfilling prophecy” present throughout the active coalfields wherever residents and sympathizers in solidarity had begun to organize resistance against “King Coal,” they quickly became overwhelmed by the scope of consequences these landscapes suffered under “the energy curse” and the complexity and diversity of regional issues. From coal extraction [mountain “top” removal, or more truly, mountain range removal, contour-mining, cross-ridge mining, high-wall mining, long wall-mining etc. and deep-mining] to coal-washing [coal slurry impoundments and injections and subsequent leaching and disaster-spills] to burning [emissions, coal ash or combustion-waste impoundments and subsequent disaster-spills] to accelerated erosion, de-population, prescription drug and other hard drug addiction, economic depression and other results of an unsustainable industry’s unilateral domination . . it became apparent the necessity of getting this very large sense of story consolidated into a form to yield a much larger audience than a conventional documentary and the persistence and vigor necessary to collaborate with hundreds an indicative series worthy of public discourse beyond the bituminous seam. Their journey transformed into a 16 month commitment turning pan-Appalachian, cross-organizational and broader than a movement. The Portrait-Story Project soon pushed its capacity for geographic envelope, staying on the road for the parts of 2008 and 2009 warm enough to reasonably draw people outdoors in a temperate zone.

The drawings began simply enough with penciled charcoal and carbon, woodless and wooded graphite, colored pencil, china marker and plain sketch paper. Adopting progressively thicker papers to accommodate an evolving and more intensively layered style, spectrums of media emerged from powdery to oily, common to uncommon, natural to synthetic: vine charcoal, both primitive and conventional, conte crayon, chalk, colored charcoal, woodless colored “pencils,” soft, semi-soft, hard and oil pastels, watercolor, encaustic oil sticks, industrially manufactured oils, tempera, aerosol fixative and then hand-crafted oils, tempera, glair, emulsions and varnish. On a few occasions they bartered for local clay or found clay in streambeds, dug it out, dried and pounded and shifted it into pigments of pure but subtle colors obviously not available on the mainstream market. You can notice these changes at a glance. Sealing many pages archivally from the acidity of the oils are base coats of ground chalks, pastels, or loose dry pigment whipped into a primer or several layers of other paint, leaving a kind of minimalist abstract on the page before the representational drawing began. Brief were the detours into tempera sizing and aerosol primer, walnut and acrylic ink, gouache, acrylic and fabric paint, wax crayon and paint markers or oil pens. Sometimes the artist struggled with making grateful use the materials that were donated, to keep this almost budget-less endeavor frugally underway. Yet a seamless integration of unlikely materials kept arriving in an austere aesthetic of stylized realism with intense tonal values, which sometimes appeared “black and white” to some viewers at a distance or in a dimly lit room. Often those drawn would pick which “underpainting” of tinted primers and the like which suited their fancy. In just a few cases they even helped grind a piece of chalk of their choosing with a muller and pestle into powder, then scraped the dust into a porcelain dish to vigorously stir in egg yolk to make tempera.

Portraits hung on fence in the dark.

Their vehicle running on waste vegetable oil, which restaurant managers routinely had to otherwise pay a contractor to haul away, made their long-distance and non-commercial context possible as local supporters located the caches of this particular post-consumer waste stream, to fuel these Portrait-Story nomads driving onwards.

Even though they often emphasized to the many they met, the difficulties of their way of life, one of them said, “We’ll remember this journey as one of our most rewarding.” As this “art and story documentary” traveled, a quickly growing show, it became it increasingly tough to display its entirety in all places where denizens desired exhibition: cafes, conferences, community centers, galleries, family reunions, grassroots campaign houses and so on. As once announced, “The phenomena is only as real as we all make it, and you can be phenomenal too!”

Most spectators after reading or skimming just a few narratives quickly realize the plurality throughout these Portrait-Stories. Folks wrote of everything from their sense of identity, sometimes genealogy traced up to the present, to childhood memories, to their exercise of folk culture, to old United Mine Workers Association struggles, to perceived changes in the land and impacts upon their life from surface “mining,” to non-violent direct action or civil disobedience to halt or bring attention to the industry’s callousness, to trying to create a more tenable Appalachian economy to practicing primitive skills or permaculture. Stories range from silly to sentimental to tragic to folksy to transgressive, from incidental, myopic or immediate to serious, implicative and far-sighted, from meanderingly diffuse to decisive.

Portraits laid out on a floor.Excessive demand for explanation defies credulity – The Portrait-Stories speak direct, individuated by writing style in the most literal sense – the actual writing most “writers” don’t do anymore. For some, the act of handwriting brought a meditativeness and style of prose unachievable otherwise. As we exhibit these Portrait-Stories, in our own community spaces, we find ourselves with a landscape of faces, faces of and for a land.

Early on the bottom-liners had not foreseen the immense challenge of drawing portraits and gathering stories from such a large region. They came to accept that Appalachia or even the coalfields could be elastically defined, stretching over thousands of square miles. They also realized, that as more and more whom they would meet would self-identify as “Appalachian” and find “Voices for Appalachia” as relevant to their communities, it became as though they ran to keep up with a course that so many others kept setting for them. And what a long fascinating journey it became. In geological terms, they explored mostly the Cumberlands and also the Tennessee Valley and Blue Ridge and to a much lesser extent the Alleghenies and Piedmont. In ecological terms, they overwhelmingly moved within mixed mesophytic forest, arguably rainforest. In statist terms they mostly went through eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, to a lesser extent western North Carolina, western Virginia, northern West Virginia, and to a lesser extent still, southeast Ohio and central Pennsylvania and way too many counties to name here. In social terms they hopped from academia and high profile conferences to moonshining shacks and roadside camping, from parks, community centers, cafes, galleries, museums, to homesteading farms, family reunions and festivals, from intentional communities to downtowns, from grassroots campaign headquarters to private residencies, from indigenous to old-timers to back-to-the-landers to newcomers, from second-home retirees to the homeless, from fundamentalists and evangelicals to pagans, agnostics and secular humanists. They learned, and from The Portrait-Stories you will see, there is no one Appalachia.

Only a few times, where several worthwhile events occurred at once, some they had already committed to, and the driving just got too strenuous, did they have to regretfully decline further invites. Some hosts or organizers expressed pleasant surprise at the absence of monetary charge for summoning The Portrait-Story Project to their event. Many were pleased to discover there was no charge for being drawn as long as one desired to contribute the content for their handwriting so their perspective could be rendered authentic to the world as intellectual commonwealth.

Some feared government, coal company or local community reprisal for writing their uncensored stories, yet most came to understand the very safe and nurturing nature of this patient and gentle media which had no question and answer format and gave full breadth to all need for confidentiality – neither ambush makeover nor muckraking. In practice, despite the severity of concern, sensationalism seemed relatively absent or at least mild, even when participants wrote of socially-conscious days of action aimed at awareness-raising to disrupt business-as-usual or of industry-induced calamity and violence.

One began and ended the narrative where they chose and one did not have to sign their name if they didn’t want to. Privacy stayed sensitively respected, innuendo never projected. Very often portraits were left with participants so they would have as much time as they needed to consider what they would write. Some were drawn several times over many visits.

Portraits on display.In some cases those drawn had already enjoyed a whole plethora of media about their concerns or heritage. In many cases, those drawn told their visitors they had never gotten drawn before and had never experienced any professional form of media at all. Many seeing The Portrait-Stories exhibited then wanted the series to grace their own spaces as well. Despite the odds of seeking a “critical mass of input” over great distances in an overwhelmingly rural context the artist drew nearly 2,000 portraits altogether in Appalachia.

Convincing folks they “have a story” or at least that memories of their experience could become one, often stood as a challenge. Others had the opposite “problem,” having such a long, variegated and interesting sense of their lives that they became overwhelmed considering which of their many stories they might take the time to scribe. Often the bottom-liners would engage participants in conversation, usually during drawing sessions, until a winning or compelling anecdote became apparent. Often participants sought to know what others had written, eagerly reading through stacks of originals, generally realizing the impossibility of a quick comprehensive sense. Many, still unsure of “their story,” opted to mull on it until the next visit.

As the artist increasingly had to deal with the finite reality of his labor capacity, (his bouts of tendon strain and wrist weakness, which threatened carpal tunnel kept returning) he also had to place a higher premium on his labor in drawing in relation to participant’s effort in writing. Finding it produced a higher yield of “archived protagonism,” the bottom-liners increasingly encouraged the The Portrait-Story protagonists to do rough drafts before the drawing sessions began, as a demoralizing number of would-be Portrait-Stories remained unfulfilled as mere portraits, as so many individuals had their own extenuating circumstances. Later still the phenomena bottom-liners starting favoring to go where folks composed autobiography for the occasion before they arrived. Sometimes a very enthusiastic member of a community would make it their task to spread The Portrait-Story concept beforehand, instigating neighbors figure out their narratives. In regard to the growing scope of the series, revisiting every place, to attempt retrieval of every drawing they could recall, became steadily more impractical. Reluctantly, the bottom-liners began offering a mailing address, a formality they had earlier avoided in favor of finished stories always being handed directly from one person within the phenomena to another. Given this choice, many enjoyed the longer opportunity to deliberate their narrations.

Yet many of the portraits never returned as Portrait-Stories within larger series where they become synergistically more powerful. Over a thousand unwritten on would-be “Voices for Appalachia” originals float or languish out there in the world, hopefully still intact, in the hands of over a thousand drawn.

As it stands now we are very proud to be able to present this body of over 600 pages of Appalachian Portrait-Stories originals. If you have adequate interior wall space within Appalachia to exhibit the bulk of this original art and handwriting at approximately eye level, and desire this precious, unique collection for your public event, then contact United Mountain Defense; umdvolunterrhouse [at] yahoo.com or 865-689-2778.

Please take proper advantage of this voluminous living history of outreach and education about the movement for Appalachian sustainability and “life after Coal.” While Portrait-Story originals themselves are never for sale, you may either display Voices for Appalachia originals for public viewing at no charge or for public viewing as fundraiser for groups which The Portrait-Story Project has partnered with, in order to supporting direct action defending the Appalachians or moving towards build sustainable, ecologically sound, local economies for Appalachian communities.